"A Bold Protest Against Disunion," New York Times, December 11, 1860, p. 1.
New York Times
A Bold Protest Against Disunion
The following text is presented here in complete form, as it originally appeared in print. Spelling and typographical errors have been preserved as in the original.
A BOLD PROTEST AGAINST DISUNION.
LETTER FROM JOHN MINOR BOTTS PROTESTING AGAINST SECESSION.
LETTER FROM JOHN MINOR BOTTS PROTESTING AGAINST SECESSION.
RICHMOND, NOV. 27, 1860.
MY DEAR SIR: I have been endeavoring to make an opportunity for some days past, to answer your very friendly and seductive letter, but my whole time, day and night, has been so constantly occupied with matters that could not be postponed, that until the present, I have been compelled to defer it – and even now I must be brief.
I speak of your letter as being seductive; I refer, of course, to those portions which hold out promises of future greatness, if I will “seize upon the present occasion with a nervous grasp, and guide the movement in favor of secession,” which you think is fixed and inevitable; and many a charming women has sacrificed her honor and her reputation to the insidious tempter, under far less imposing circumstances was only because they had not the firmness to say, as I do now say to you, in the language of our Savior – “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
I do not concur with you in opinion, that the dissolution of the Union is inevitable; the sky looks threatening, I grant you, but so it has been done before, and yet the clearest sunshine has succeeded, without a shower of rain or peal of thunder – so I trust it will be again. But if it should be otherwise, and the Government of the United States is to be overthrown, no party of the folly, the wickedness, or the crime, shall be charged upon me, either by the wise and good men of the present age, or of generations yet to come.
True, South Carolina has rushed on me with headlong impetuosity, wholly unsuited to the gravity of the occasion, as if she were afraid to trust herself with time for calm deliberation, relying more upon the passion than the wisdom of her people; and it may be, that under a ridiculous, and false idea of a becoming pride, and true greatness, she may involve herself in very serious difficulty; she may even declare herself out of the Union; she did so by Ordinance in Convention in 1833; but still the Union was not rend asunder, nor will it now be, as I think; no other State is likely to go with her, and what is best, and surest of all, Virginia certainly will not in her present state of mind.
If I could see the least semblance of justification in the attitude South Carolina has assumed, I would sympathize with her – but I cannot, for reasons already given in my speech, which you say you have just read. I see nothing in that position but plain, bold, daring, flat-footed rebellion, against, and treason to, the rest of the States, and I cannot, under any contingency, be induced to take sides with her in her disloyalty and treachery. Who can ask it of me when her own most trusted and active leader, Mr. YANCEY, in his Montgomery speech, said:
“If I understand my distinguished friend from Virginia, (Mr. PRYOR,) the election of a Black Republican President would be an issue for disunion. I understand that my learned colleague, (Mr. HILLIARD,) to say that upon that issue he would be ready to dissolve the Union. I say with all deference to my colleagues here, that no mere inferior issue could be tendered to the South upon which we could dissolve the Union, than the loss of an election. When I am asked to raise the flag of revolution against an election under the forms o law and the Constitution, I am asked to do an unconstitutional thing, according to the Constitution as it now exists. I am asked to put myself in the position of a REBEL, of a TRAITOR; in a position, where, if the Government should succeed, and put down the revolution, I and my friends can be arraigned before the Supreme Court of the United States, and there be sentenced to be hanged, for violating the Constitution and laws of my country.”
Such is the admission of the leader whom you propose to follow, and you make an earnest appeal to me to unite with you in assuming the position of a rebel and a traitor, for which I may be sentenced to be hanged for violating the Constitution and laws of my country. Pardon me, my respected, but impetuous friend, but I had rather not; I am impelled by even cansideration of honor and duty to decline your very polite invitation.
Do you doubt, or does any sensible and reflecting man doubt, that Mr. YANCEY described truly the situation which every man occupies who favors the movement of South Carolina, because of the election of Mr. LINCOLN? for even she does nor pretend that she would have occupied her present position if LINCOLN had been defeated, and yet, are you not surprised to see so many of our own people turning “rebels” and “traitors” at her bidding? – are you not indeed surprised at yourself? Rebel and traitor! Very imposing and high-sounding designations in the estimation of some, perhaps, but I have no particular desire that they should attach to my name – rather now, or in alter life. My aspirations do not run in that line.
South Carolina, spurning the counsels, and cooperation of Virginia and other Southern States, has of her own accord, and upon her own hook, chosen to raise a mighty and a fearful issue with the General Government, and upon the General Government rests the responsibility of settling the question. Hands off and fair-play to both, say I. In its present state, we have nothing to do with it, and, so far as I am concerned, I turn her over to “Uncle Sam,” and if she can maintain her position against that respectable and powerful old gentleman, let her have all the honor and glory and benefit of the achievement to herself. I hope she may have a good and merry time of it. She will still be a State OF the Union, IN a state of rebellion, and I have not a shadow of a doubt either of the right or the power to control her; the only question would be, Is it worth while? Would it not be better to let her go out, and stay out, until she had made the experiment, and, like the prodigal son, return to her home to eat up the fatted calf?
But that unfortunately would lead to another perplexing difficulty, which is, that it would amount to an acknowledgement, that we have no Government, and never had one; that our fathers were a set of old fools and fogies, who thought they were making for their posterity a Government that would endure forever whilst it was nothing more than a mere voluntary association of States, to be tolerated only so long as it was entirely convenient and agreeable to all the parties to remain in it, but that the moment it became irksome to any one State, it might be broken up, as readily as an ordinary party at whist, whenever one of the partners happened to tire or grow drowsy – and it requires but little reflection to satisfy any reasonable man, that if the doctrine of the right of secession is once recognized by the Government, all its powers cease at once, even although the doctrine may not be carried into effect. The Government is now supported by loans and Treasury notes, and has been with the exception of short intervals for the last twenty-five years. What credit would the Government be entitled to, and what could it obtain, either at home or abroad, if it were understood that any one State might at any moment break up the Government, and thus cancel the debt, as South Carolina now proposes to cancel hers?
When should we be safe in declaring war for the defence of our honor, or our rights, or for the protection of our people, if in the midst of war, the Union could be dissolved, and the Government destroyed, whenever some one of the States might be disappointed in the election off her favorite candidate for the Presidency, or because her interest would be promoted by doing so, or because it would enhance the price of cotton to open a direct trade with the enemy? What Government on earth would thereafter treat with us, as one of the nations of the world? or treat us with respect? I do not wish to be disrespectful to anybody – and most surely not to you, but I hope you would pardon me for saying, that one of the inconceivable and irreconcilable things of this world to my mind, is that an idea, of such unmixed and unmitigated nonsense and absurdity as that of the right of a State to secede at pleasure, should ever have obtained a place in the mind of any man, who was not an absolute lunatic. Men’s minds are differently organized, I know, and we see things through different optics, and I dare say, you and others look upon me, in the same light, as I look upon you and upon them. Well, be it so; honors are easy, and we break even.
It has become quite a favorite and fashionable mode of expression to say, “this is not a Government of force; the Government was not made by force, and cannot be kept together by force.”
It is very true that the Government was not made by force, and it is for that very reason that there is no right to break it up, and that it can be kept together by force. Whether that is a desirable mode of doing it is altogether a different question. If it had been formed by force – if some tyrannical despot had forced a Government upon the people, which had never obtained their approval or assent – then any of the parties would be justified in throwing it off whenever they could get rid of it. But it is precisely because it was not made by force, but that, on the other hand, it was a free and voluntary compact, entered into one with another, and each one with all the rest, that there is a power to enforce the compact.
Debts are not, and cannot be created by force; but, if voluntarily entered into, the payment of the obligation may be enforced by the strong arm of the law; and the compact between the states, having been voluntarily entered into, may in a like manner be enforced, if necessary, by the strong arm of the Government – and it is no Government at all, if it is not of sufficient force to protect itself against treason and rebellion on the part of its own citizens. If it is not a Government of force, why was Congress clothed with the power “to provide for calling forth the militia, to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrection, and repel invasions,” whether they come from within or without? Pshaw! that’s all fal-lal, to tickle the ears of groundlings. It was a Government of force, and very efficient force, in 1833, when the force bill passed a Democratic Congress in the House by a vote of 149 to 48, and in the Senate by 32 to 1. When and how has the Constitution been changed since that time, or is it only because statesmen have grown more wise of late? Establish this doctrine of secession and it is at once settled that there is an absolute impossibility of ever forming a fixed, permanent and stable Government as designed by its founders, then language cannot be employed that would make it so, and our institutions are no better than those of Mexico.
But if a new Confederacy were to be formed, I could not go with you, for I should use whatever influence I might be able to exert against entering into one with South Carolina, that has played the part of a common brawler and disturber of the public peace for the last thirty years, and who could give no security that I would be willing to accept that she would not be as faithless to the next compact as she has been to this which she is now endeavoring to avoid. In addition to which, the objects and interests of South Carolina, as she conceives them, are essentially at variance with those of Virginia; this state will never sanction piracy, and if not, South Carolina does not desire our company, and would get rid of us as soon as possible.
What may be the ultimate condition of things, I do not pretend to be prophetic enough to foretell, but I do not think there is any likelihood that any other State will go out, as South Carolina proposes to do, in a sort of sky-rocket blaze; the rest will be disposed to consider matters more carefully, and will take time for consideration and reflection, during which much may, and I think will be done, to reconcile existing differences.
The Northern party has succeeded to power; they are deeply interested, in a political sense, in keeping the Union together, and can well afford to do all that we have a right to demand, under the Constitution; and if they do not, we may be able to accomplish all that is essential, through the action of Congress.
Now, as you say to me, “sit down, side by side with me,” and let us talk this matter over. Suppose the North should agree to repeal their obnoxious legislation, which has for its object the obstruction to the execution of the Fugitive Slave Law, (which they ought not hesitate to do, even if no Union were at stake,) and if not, suppose Congress should so modify that law as to relieve it of that obnoxious feature to which I referred in my Lynchbugh speech, and there by add too, rather than impair its efficiency, and accompany that legislation with a bill declaring it to be a felony of the highest grade, and subject to heavy penalties by fine and imprisonment to rescue or attempt to rescue a slave in custody of the officers, or after he had been restored to his master, and making the General Government responsible for the value of the slave that may be rescued, and holding it as a charge against the State that shall permit the law to be thus violated within its Territory; then suppose in reference to the Territories, there should be wisdom and patriotism enough, in both sections of the country, to restore matters to the condition they occupied prior to 1854, by reestablishing the Missouri Compromise line; don’t you think, my good friend, you could then be persuaded to agree that all the Southern States, except South Carolina, would agree even without the restoration of the Missouri line, to remain a little longer in the Union? although South Carolina might have assumed that she was too good, and high toned, and chivalric to remain where Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, North Carolina and Missouri, would be proud to stay? And if South Carolina should be deaf to all remonstrance and insist that shoe would stay out, after that, don’t you think she ought to be left to share the fate that she had so unnecessarily courted and provoked.
All this I have strong hope may be accomplished, if reasonable time is allowed, - a suitable spirit is adopted, and a proper course is pursued; but I do not think it can be done by the system of bullying and bravado, that many of our leading men have a decided passion for. The North and South are equally brave, and a brave people, like a brave man, will always despise and defy a bully, and there has been too much of that game played on both sides.
I believe in the patriotism of reflecting men of all parties and of both sections, and I am confident in the belief that each will, in the spirit that animated our fathers, for the sake of the Union, surrender much that has been claimed on both sides, before they pull down this great temple of liberty on their own heads.
I will not stop to inquire which section would suffer most from a rupture of the Union, because I do not calculate its value by dollars and cents; it is enough for me to know, that both would sustain a calamity that neither time nor labor nor money could repair. But to accomplish anything, reason and persuasion must take the place of threats and taunts and crimination, and recrimination. How all this is to be brought about, is another question, which I leave to those who are in [power to bring about – but I have an abiding trust and confidence in the same Good Spirit that has directed us through every trying difficulty that the way will be prepared to save the great, glorious, thrice-blessed, and God-like work of our Fathers to us, and to our children and to our children’s children.
One thing, my friend, you may be assured of, that when the necessity shall arise for Virginia to take up arms against the Government of the United States, she will require no other State to set her an example of what it becomes her honor to do – but she will neither be “hitched on” nor “dragged into” any rebellious or treasonable movement by the most spoiled child of the whole family. Virginia made the Union; it is chiefly the work of the hands of her children, and she will adhere to, abide in, protect and preserve it, until some stronger reasons than now exists for its destruction.
One word more. Are we to have a State Convention? I hope not – there is no sufficient reason for a Convention – the public mind is not in a condition for a Convention – it is in too excited a state for such deliberation as the public interests demand, and artful means have been used to make it so, and the state of your own mind serves as evidence of that fact.
Men are not made wiser, or more temperate, from being sent into a Convention, that to any other deliberate body – such as Congress or the Legislature – nor have we any reason to suppose, when party spirit runs as high as it does now, that wiser and better men would be selected for such a place and for such a purpose as is contemplated – and would you ordinarily trust, or do you know anybody who would be willing ta trust, the existence or destruction of this National Government to the hands of those who fill either of these departments? The world was not made in an hour – it is not likely to be destroyed in a day; there is no occasion then for such remarkable haste.
Nobody purposes to fire out dwellings, or to steal our substance away from us; there is plenty of time before us – let us then be patient, be wise, be moderate; give time for the passions excited by the late election and the scenes that now surround us to calm down, Let us act like men, and not like children, and above all, let us take to ascertain facts, and not be led away from the path of duty and honor, by the ten thousand misrepresentations that are scattered broadcast over the country for the purpose of inflaming popular passion.
It takes a great while to build up a Government, and it will require a vast deal of labor, reflection, foresight, knowledge, wisdom and experience to form one that will prove a satisfactory substitute for this which you propose to discard.
Do you feel sure that the State is prepared at a moment’s notice to bring all these various essential elements to bear upon this subject? I you are, I am not! and as there is less danger to be apprehended from cautious deliberation than from impetuous haste, I beg you to unite with me in urging the people of Virginia not to be in too great a hurry to destroy, or hazard the loss of, what all the world will never be able to give them again;
I am, respectfully, your obedient servant and friend,
To H.B.M., Esq., of Staunton, Va.